Close to Home: Homesick; Luke 21:25-36; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; November 28, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Scott and I have been packing, filling boxes and doing our best to be ready when the movers arrive. (Since he’s been off preaching at another church for the last 6 weeks, I am again admitting to God and you and everybody that Scott has done the lion-share of that work and I want him to know that I’ve told you that, and am not taking even half credit for all the work he’s done).
I have done my best to sort and toss and give away, but a lot of that I’m putting off till later when I have more time. But I found a box that was in the spare bedroom closet that had other stuff on top of it and has gone unnoticed for the last 5 ½ years. I opened it up and began going through it, and found some journals I’d written when I was in nursing school (when I was
19-21 years old), and some other things that I thought would be fun to look at another time, so I saved them for later. There was also artwork our children created for us from pre-school onward, along with report cards and notes and letters they’d written to us.
One lengthy letter was written by Dominique on that wide-spaced paper when she was almost 9 years old. She wrote the note to me while Scott and I were in Israel. Scott and I led (maybe) a 10-day trip through Educational Opportunities with members of each of our churches. It just happened to be in February, and we were out of the country the day Dominique turned 9.
Jim and Ellen, great friends of ours stayed at our house and cared for the kids while we were gone. They were folks who “stood in” on Grandparents Day and other activities because our extended family didn’t live close. They loved our kids and our kids loved them. They had planned a great day for Dominique’s birthday and we were going to have another party with her when we got home. I didn’t think that it would be that big of a deal to celebrate with her later. But it was.
Her letter reminded me of that. I’m sure the first time I read it that it clutched my heart even more than it did a few days ago, 27 years later.
In her letter, she professed her love for us, of what great parents we were, and how much she missed us. She said she loved Jim and Ellen and that they loved her, and were so nice, but she missed us and couldn’t wait until we were home again.
She was homesick for us, and as I read her note again, I was homesick for her, too: for the little girl who I love so much, and whose world was unsettled, because her mom and dad were in an unfamiliar place far away from home.
This Advent season our preaching series is entitled “Close to Home” as we look at the “already but not yet” tension of our faith. Jesus came once into our world, born in a manger, and inaugurating his reign on earth. He is “Emmanuel” God with us now, and yet he will come again. God has promised that Christ will come again and his kingdom will be fully realized; we will be forever at home with him.
But until that time, we experience homesickness. We are unsettled. Things aren’t fully right. There’s so much good around us, so many ways we can feel and experience God’s presence, and yet sometimes it feels as though God is too far away from us. We want to feel that God is closer, and I’m certain there are times when God sees us, and longs for us to be closer to God, as well.
Each year as we begin the season of Advent and look at the lectionary texts for this first Sunday, to me at least, they feel startling. Honestly, this first Sunday of Advent (pretty much always, I think) comes right after Thanksgiving, and there are always all kinds of things going on, in addition to the anticipation and beginning plans for Christmas (yes, we all like to jump right over the Advent preparation and get straight into the nitty-gritty “reason” for the season). We want to start thinking about Mary and Joseph and angels and shepherds—you know, everything that leads us directly to the manger.
But instead, we get these crazy, wild and unsettling (there’s that word again!) biblical texts about “signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Really? I’m looking for some peace that will lead to a manger. Instead, we’re taken to the end times, and from what I’ve seen in the movies over the years, those are NOT times I’m looking forward to.
Being with Jesus? Having him establish his reign on earth? That part sounds fine. Nice. Good! But the end times on earth? Not so much.
I think there are a couple of reasons it’s necessary for us to hear about and to deal with these scriptures as we begin this season. Most importantly, we need to be reminded that there’s more to the story than the nativity. We’re not diminishing the significance of Christ’s coming as an infant in Bethlehem by any means. God in the flesh? That’s amazing! To know that God would humble God’s self into a flesh and blood human infant, completely dependent upon others for love and care to survive—and then, ultimately giving up that life to die on a cross—that’s amazing. I mean, who would do that? Well, God. God did that. For us. For us.
So that’s the first reason. The second reason for us to read these scriptures now is to remind us that Jesus coming into the world as a flesh and blood infant isn’t the end of the story. He’s coming again. And so, our preparations aren’t only for the flesh and blood infant Jesus, but for God in Christ who will one day return in glory…in a cloud with power and great glory.
Here’s something I want you to think about: verses 25-28 are scary. These are verses that made Tim Lahaye rich in his “Left Behind” series. I never read the books because I have a tender heart and I already have trouble sleeping at night and letting go of troubling or unsettling thoughts and images. (I keep using the word “unsettled.” It seems to fit.)
But, immediately following these apocalyptic events, Jesus tells a parable: he offers the lesson of the fig tree. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he says. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”
Fig trees, from what I understand are unique in the fact that they begin to bear fruit before they sprout leaves. When the leaves begin to appear, people know summer isn’t far away and it’s time to begin preparing by pulling out the shorts and sandals. In the same way, Jesus coming into the world the first time indicates that his return is already near. Everything has been set into motion. We don’t know when it will happen, of course. Jesus telling the disciples that “this generation won’t pass away until these things have taken place” makes it a bit confusing, because we know that that generation DID pass away and Jesus still hasn’t returned. But I can’t help but wonder if we might reconsider the apocalyptic, end-of-world activity that we’ve imagined—and that has been reinforced by movies, books and our own creative imaginations—and consider another possibility.
Perhaps the signs to which Jesus refers are not fire and rain pouring down from heaven or whatever other awful things we imagine the end times might look like as God battles against the powers of evil but are instead the sad and destructive and awful things, we are already seeing in our world that are equally threatening. But because they haven’t happened all at once—but gradually—we don’t think about how truly destructive they are…
Let’s start by talking about the environment: the air, water and soil pollution that threaten plant, human, fowl, and animal life. Such things as harmful emissions, fertilizer runoff, overuse of plastics, strip-mining, deforestation, fracking and so much more than I know to name contribute to the destruction. We human beings have already caused damage from which our earth will never recover, and every day we’re causing more.
The earth is vibrating from our continued assault on the environment, while we behave as though our actions are of no consequence. But our actions do have consequences. Maybe we’re already living in and creating the apocalypse.
What if among the signs Jesus is referring to is the way we treat one another? The injustice that we too often fail to notice because we’ve gotten used to it/that’s just the way life is. Think of all the “isms” in our culture: racism, sexism, classism, agism, weight-ism, homophobia. I realize that’s not an ism, but it involves the disregard and diminishment of other human beings like the other “isms” do. In recent years, we’ve added politics as a reason to dislike or hate someone else.
A good friend of mine since high school totally ghosted me in the weeks leading up to the last political election. I think I made the mistake of asking what she meant by a comment she’d made on Facebook, because I didn’t understand what she said, and from that moment on, she disappeared. With the recent death of another high school friend, she’s reappeared again. But it seems that friends are no longer friends these days because of differing politics.
I probably shouldn’t even mention the pandemic and “vaccine-ism.” We’re divided into 2 groups there, too. All we needed was one more reason to argue with one another, right?
It seems to me that the earth is vibrating because of the way we treat one another. Because of the words that come out of our mouths. Because of our disregard for those who are different from us. Maybe we’re already living in and creating the apocalypse that we’ve feared.
And yet, in the midst of all these things, please consider this: the Gospel of Luke is painting a picture for us of Christ’s return as a time of hope and expectation. He’s painting a picture of something good. Jesus is coming back to us because God loves us and wants to redeem us. Stand up and raise your heads, your redemption is drawing near. Jesus isn’t talking about destruction; he’s talking about redemption! The fig tree promises new life.
Perhaps the best part of coming to know this, is realizing we’re invited to participate in God’s redeeming work. And so, it’s important for us to be alert to interpret the signs of the times. We need to be clear headed so we can recognize movements that are of God and participate in those movements, while at the same time discern those activities that work against the divine purposes and criticize them/speak against them. We need to be fully aware so we can be courageous when the time comes for us to stand up against the principalities and powers that seek to obstruct God’s work, whose purposes diminish others, and grieve the heart of God.
“Stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus says, “for your redemption is drawing near!”
In our second reading of the day, the letter Paul writes to the church of Thessalonica is offered as a word of encouragement. These young Christians have endured persecution and suffering, and yet they have persevered; they have remained steadfast and hopeful. And so, Paul praises God for them and urges them to “abound in love for one another.”
“Abound in love for one another.”
I think that is an important word for us, too. In this world of ours, divided in so many ways, and during this in-between time as we prepare and wait for Christ’s return, may we abound in love for one another. As followers of Christ, let us focus on loving relationships within the church and beyond the church, that take us into the community and into the world. We’re called to love God and to love one another—those we know and those who are strangers, those who are like us, and those who are very unlike us. We are called to accept and love those who fall short in their Christian walk or who do not know what it is to walk in relationship with God. We’re called to serve. We’re called to abound in love.
As we do these things, we’ll grow in our relationships with one another, and in our relationship with God, as well. Our unsettledness will become more settled. Our homesickness will diminish. God seems closer. Because God is at home…in us. Emmanuel. Amen.